Civil Rights Case over Idaho Grazing Can Advance

September 30, 2008

A Washington businessman and environmentalist who in 2006 was the high bidder on six state grazing leases can proceed with his federal civil rights lawsuit against Idaho officials including Lt. Gov. Jim Risch after they awarded the leases instead to ranchers who had offered less money in a competitive auction.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Gordon Younger, a Seattle packaging business owner and head of Lazy Y Ranch Ltd. against Risch and four other members of the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners. Their Aug. 8, 2006 decision gave the 10-year leases to the second-highest bidders.

Younger is a contributor to the Western Watersheds Project, a group seeking to end grazing on public land in the Rocky Mountains on grounds it damages the environment.

He had planned to outbid ranchers for state leases, then manage the lands to restore what he described was “their degraded streams and wildlife habitats.” In his lawsuit, Younger contends his constitutional right to equal protection was violated when he made the highest bid of $5,825 but lost out to ranchers who had previously held the leases, based on the Land Board’s bias against conservation groups and out-of-state businesses.

“Under state management, they’ve not been doing much to protect those areas,” Laird Lucas, Younger’s lawyer in Boise, told The Associated Press Sunday. “Conservationists can come and bid more money, then improve state land. Everybody should win. But of course, we’ve had political bias against conservationists.”

Lucas also said the Land Board’s decision violates provisions of the Idaho Constitution requiring they carefully preserve Idaho state endowment lands to secure the maximum long-term financial return to benefit public schools.

In addition to Risch, who was Idaho’s temporary governor at the time of the decision and is now running for U.S. Senate, other defendants include Secretary of State Ben Ysursa; former Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard; Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; and Keith Johnson, Idaho’s former controller.

Western Watersheds Project has long challenged the Land Board in court to secure competitive state grazing leases. In 1999, the group won three unanimous Idaho Supreme Court decisions, including to eliminate grazing-lease preferences given to ranchers.

In the decision issued Friday, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall reaffirmed a previous ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Mikel Williams rejecting the state’s call for Younger’s lawsuit to be dismissed.

“Lazy Y has properly alleged that defendants violated its rights under the Equal Protection Clause, and also that they violated clearly established law,” Holcomb Hall wrote, allowing the case to now move forward toward trial.

Before the 2006 decision, an Idaho Department of Lands employee recommended to commissioners they accept the second-highest bids. Allowing Younger to win, the employee concluded, would result in higher administration costs because the lands up for lease were unfenced, allowing cattle from adjacent federal or private land to wander onto them.

Younger then offered to pay for fencing to keep cattle out, as well as provide $30,000 or more for any additional costs; the commissioners rejected his offer on grounds such compensation was “beyond…the expectations at the time of the auction,” according to court documents.

In arguments in early August the 9th Circuit panel, a lawyer for the state argued the lawsuit against the Land Board members should be thrown out in part because they had “articulated a legitimate reason for rejecting Lazy Y’s bids,” according to the documents.

“Defendants are incorrect,” Holcomb Hall wrote. “Though defendants assert that they classified only on the basis of the costs associated with prospective lessors’ management plans, nothing in the case requires us to accept their explanation. Similarly, while administrative costs might be a valid reason to deny a bidder a lease, it simply does not offer a basis for treating conservationists differently from other bidders.”

Contacted by the AP Sunday, Risch, a lawyer and rancher, said he recalls voting to award the leases to the second-highest bidders based only on his concern the Lazy Y proposal wasn’t feasible given the locations of the grazing lands and would cost Idaho more than the $30,000 offered.

Risch maintains he was unaware Younger and Lazy Y were affiliated with Western Watersheds Project at the time of the 2006 decision. According to final minutes of the Aug. 8, 2006 meeting reviewed by the AP Sunday, no mention of a connection was made during a discussion of the leases.

“My recollection is, I did not know,” Risch said. “If I did, it wouldn’t have affected it (my decision). The sole determining factor for me was, what the return to the schools was going to be.”

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